THE BLOG

Dignity, Humanity and Equality: Shaping Our Foreign Policy

16/10/2015 10:14 BST | Updated 15/10/2016 10:12 BST

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Photo credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Last week, the Labour Party led the call in the European Parliament to free Ali Mohammed al-Nimr. An urgent resolution, co-proposed by the Socialist and Democrat's group foreign affairs coordinator UK Labour MEP Richard Howitt, called upon Saudi King Salman to pardon the child demonstrator, who has been sentenced to death by crucifixion, despite being just seventeen years old at the time of his arrest. All reports surrounding his sentencing indicated that the decision to judge him a terrorist was based on undisclosed evidence, a confession obtained under duress and a secret trial.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most prolific executors in the world, having executed at least 134 people so far this year. The Saudi authorities have repeatedly failed to respect international standards for fair trials and UN safeguards ensuring the protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty. Saudi Arabia also continues to sentence to death and execute individuals for crimes committed when they were below 18 years of age and against persons with mental disabilities, in violation of international law.

The sentencing of Ali to such a horrific death is deplorable but made all the worse by the exposure of our own country's government placing lucrative bids to provide services to the very same Saudi Prison Service contracted to effect al-Nimr's death penalty sentence. According to the UK's "Overseas Security and Justice Assistance Human Rights Guidance", authored by William Hague in 2011, it is imperative that the United Kingdom's security and justice work overseas reflects our commitments as "a defender and promoter of human rights and democracy" and is resolutely informed by British values.

Saudi Arabia's track record on the use of the death penalty, unlawful interference with democratic rights and use of unlawful and arbitrary arrest is well understood to be poor and stands in stark contradiction to Britain's proud human rights traditions. It is little wonder that David Cameron could offer little more than stumbling excuses during his excruciating interview with Jon Snow as he attempted to defend the sordid deal. This shameful behaviour speaks volumes about the current UK government's apathy towards human rights, which is only further evidenced by their enthusiasm for the repeal of the Human Rights Act on domestic soil.

It is disappointing that it was only as the case of Karl Andree emerged earlier this week, a 75 year old British Citizen facing public flogging for possessing homemade wine, that the weight of public opinion and international scrutiny has shamed Mr Cameron into dropping the controversial £5.9 million plan to train the Saudis how to run their jails. If this deal had gone ahead, the UK would be rendered complicit in the very same cruel justice system that threatens to end the lives of juveniles Ali al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhoon and the well-publicised brutal torture of activist Raif Badawi.

It is legitimate for governments to pursue their economic interests, but this must not come at the cost of unpalatable behaviour on human rights. We have a valuable opportunity to set common high human rights standards in our dealings with other states that should not be squandered for the sake of financial gain. Free trade can open a door for such regimes to change, encouraging dialogue to gradually nudge serious human rights abusers towards internationally agreed standards, serving as a force for good in our increasingly interconnected and globalised world. Money must not trump our morals and we cannot turn a blind eye in the face of brutality. There are important and effective tools at our disposal to support meaningful change on the ground, and we should not be afraid to use them.

In the European Parliament we have been pushing hard to ensure that the institution serves as a promoter of democracy, the rule of law and a driving force for political conditionality in EU foreign policy. During the Strasbourg plenary in May, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the immediate release of Swazi prisoners of conscience Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu. Maseko, a lawyer working for the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland, was arrested and detained following the publication of an article criticising the lack of independence of the Swazi judicial system. Makhubu, the editor of an independent newspaper, was also arrested for printing articles critical of the judicial system in his publication. Their imprisonment takes place against a backdrop of some of the lowest living-conditions in the world under the rule of King Mswati II. When courageous individuals such as Thulani Maskeo and Bheki Makhubu dare to stand up and challenge the state of affairs in the name of social progress, we must offer our full support.

On 19th March, following the publication of a prison letter denouncing his detention conditions, Maseko was moved to solitary confinement. A Resolution was tabled by the Socialists and Democrats Group, to which the Labour Party belongs, in response to this cruel and disproportionate development. It strongly opposed their imprisonment and the handling of their trial. Then, on 22nd May, the European Parliament adopted the resolution with the support of 579 Members of the European Parliament across all political groups. Whilst calling for the imprisoned men's immediate and unconditional release. The European Parliament also sent a clear message that the Swazi government's anti-union practices were not compatible with the generous trade preference system that Swaziland currently enjoys with the EU. Hence the demand for immediate action on this front from both Swaziland and the European Commission, who we asked to launch an immediate investigation which could lead to the suspension of the trade preferences they currently enjoy.

The EU also recently concluded negotiations for an Economic Partnership Agreement with a group of Southern African countries, including Swaziland. The agreement will only come into effect with ratification from the European Parliament. We have made clear that our support will only come following the immediate and compelling response to redress Swaziland's failure to meet ILO standards to protect union rights and respect its commitments to comply with international conventions.

As a result of this diplomatic pressure Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu were both released on 30th June, with the state conceding that there was no case against them and that their imprisonment was unlawful. It is hoped that this step is but the first in a meaningful response to our collective concerns and promise of action as the Economic Partnership Agreements come to the fore in the European Parliament. Their release is a concrete example of the power of diplomacy even in its softer form of exerting moral force without resort to its 'hard powers'.

In September a high-level delegation of Swaziland Ministers and officials came to the European Parliament to continue the conversation. In the Human Rights subcommittee, we successfully brought the Swazi representatives into the same room as Amnesty International representatives to respond to the human rights concerns placed against them.

The progress on this front is slow but significant and there are many positive signs that we are moving towards an engaged and constructive dialogue on issues not to be taken lightly as the parliamentary vote on Swaziland's eligibility for the Economic Partnership Agreement nears. We will make every effort to sustain the momentum.

Jude Kirton-Darling and Paul Brannen are Labour MEPs for the North East of England